Another McLees becomes a sprint car racer

Doug McLees has a touch for racing, a knack for the edge

April 29, 2009 

With only 10 laps remaining in his 50-lap sprint car race, Doug McLees steered his car low on the Port Angeles track, hoping to squeeze into first place.

The leader veered and closed the gap, pinching McLees down into the curb. The impact ruptured McLees’ left two tires.

Rather than braking, McLees stomped on the accelerator. The momentum lifted his white sprint car with a 600-horsepower engine onto its right two tires.

With his chassis dragging and sparks flying, McLees slipped into the lead as he reached speeds of 130 mph on the straightaway. For the rest of the race McLees muscled his sprint car around the asphalt track, lifting onto his right two tires. Fans roared their approval as he crossed the finish line in first place.

“It was amazing,” said Brian McLees, Doug’s dad. “At the finish, the chassis is on the ground. Both left side tires are flat. Unbelievable.”

That win capped Doug McLees’ remarkable rookie season last summer on the Washington Econo Sprint Car Organization (WESCO). At age 20, McLees, just four years after getting his driver’s license and two years after graduating from Olympia High School, won the WESCO series championship, beating drivers twice his age.

Winning with two flats was an exclamation point to an impressive season.

“It’s just like driving a dirt car,” McLees said, downplaying his decision to race with two flats. “You have the front right for steering. And the right rear for power. You’ve just got to go for it.”

It was McLees’ first full season racing sprint cars. But he’s no stranger to racing.

As a child, Doug remembers being in the pits, watching his dad race. Now dad’s fine tuning Doug’s car and doing the cheering.

“Watching is a lot harder than racing, in this kind of racing,” Brian McLees said. “This is probably one of the more dangerous (types of racing).”

Brian McLees raced on the Northwest tour before he traveled up-and-down the West Coast for 16 years in the super modes, a race car that looks like an Indy car. His best finish on that circuit was fifth, a major accomplishment on a limited budget.

Two of Doug McLees’ uncles won Northwest championships. Bob McLees was a midget car champ, and at age 84, is still racing open-wheel sprint cars. Jerry McLees was a sprint car champion.

Cars and McLees just seem to go together.

The family has run McLees’ Automotive Repair on Boston Harbor for 78 years. Brian has run it for the past 25 years, saying “I guess you can say cars are in our blood.”

Doug didn’t start racing until he was 16. He raced dirt bikes and quads initially, skidding sideways around corners as if he’d been doing it all his life. From the start, Doug showed a knack for pushing the edge.

“Crashing in a quad can be really tough. You just keep rolling,” Doug said. “I never crashed. But I dodged quite a few wrecks. You can’t think about getting hurt.”

After a year of racing bikes and quads, Brian thought his son was ready to graduate to sprint cars.

“He asked me if I wanted to jump into a sprint car and I said yeah,” Doug said. “I’ve never gone back.”

In 2007, Doug sat in a sprint car for the first time on the same day he entered his first race. Bad weather and a blown engine kept Doug from getting in his practice laps that week.

“I’m not going to lie to you. I was (very) nervous,” Doug said.

But he finished the race, the first of four he would run that summer.

“And I didn’t come in last,” Doug said with a wry smile. “After the first race, I was looking forward to my next one. Actually, I looked forward to getting some practice so I could compete against the faster guys.”

Brian now spends hours with his son working on their race cars. And he’s his son’s biggest fan. But when the two raced against each other in a dirt race in Oregon last summer, dad didn’t hold back.

“Doug was trying to get by me,” Brian said. “I moved on the outside of one guy. And I felt someone go over my right rear tire.”

The car went up and over Brian.

“I see the bottom of the car,” Brian said. “I said I hoped it wasn’t Doug. It was Doug. He nearly ended up on his head.”

Doug regained control of his car and finished the race. But Brian won.

“I just wanted to show him that dad could still race,” Brian said.

With crashes and injuries being a part of racing, Brian – who lost a lung in a quad accident nine years ago – has invested in “the best safety gear money can buy,” for Doug.

“We maintain things very well,” Brian said. “Special seats. Five-point seat belt. He’s got everything.”

Doug will enroll at Saint Martin’s University in the fall after graduating from South Puget Sound Community College in business. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of racing professionally.

“Glen Walker (longtime race car driver from the Northwest) said the other day that I was a really good driver,” Brian said. “Then he said, ‘But your son has the capabilities of being a great one.’

“He’s really got a touch for racing.”

top south sound races of 2009

WASHINGTON MIDGET RACING ASSOCIATION

Site: South Sound Speedway, Tenino

Date: May 16

Event: One of the region’s most exciting tours debuts at South Sound, and makes it a regular stop. Teenager Mark Atkinson became the first rookie to win the points championship last season, and will graduate from Juanita High School in June. He will run selected travel races as well. The 2007 champion, Evan Margeson, will run the WMRA circuit, too.

ASCS NORTHWEST REGION SPRINT TOUR

Site: Grays Harbor Raceway, Elma

Date: May 23-24

Event: It will be the second race of the season for the American Sprint Car Series Northwest Region, drawing racers form Washington, Oregon, Califorina, Idaho and Canada. The series includes 18 races in three states on seven tracks and this will be one of the biggest since it’s a holiday weekend. Last year’s point leaders, Jayme Barnes, is expected to race, along with Jared Ridge and Roger Crockett.

FRED BROWNFIELD MEMORIAL

Site: Grays Harbor Raceway, Elma

Date: July 17-18

Event: The third annual Fred Brownfield Memorial, saluting the late promoter, will be one of the biggest Sprint Car Series races in the country. It will be the first time the ASCA national series has raced west of the Rocky Mountains. Among the top drivers expected to race are Jason Johnson of Eunice, La., and Gary Wright from Hooks, Texas.

CANADIAN BIG RIGS

Site: South Sound Speedway, Tenino

Date: July 18

Event: Easily the most-anticipated event on the season schedule, the North American Big Rig Racing Group (NABRR) makes its annual visit to Tenino. These 900-horsepower beasts were once fully-functional work vehicles that have been converted to race trucks. Last season, Calgary resident Darren Berdahl captured the 35-lap main event. The USA Big Rigs also come to South Sound on May 30.

WORLD OF OUTLAWS 'WILD, WILD WEST TOUR'

Site: Grays Harbor Raceway, Elma

Date: Sept. 7

Event: The kings of sprint-car racing come to the Northwest only once a year, and they will hold an extravaganza of four races in five nights starting at Skagit Speedway in Alger on Sept. 4-5, moving to Elma on Labor Day, then ending at Cottage Grove Speedway in Oregon on Sept. 8. Last season, North Dakotan Donny Schatz joined 20-time series winner Steve Kinser as the only racers to win three points titles in a row.

Todd Milles, The News Tribune, and Gail Wood, The Olympian

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